I’ve been reading a massive book* since I got back from my holiday last month, and have only just reached its end. During that time I lost the cheap second-hand copy I was reading, bought it again (brand new), in the only moments of free time I had and then found the original copy. I don’t regret the £10 unnecessary outgoing because Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is great, I just wish I’d consumed the first third (slowly, over two a half weeks) as quickly as I’d got though the latter two – which I laboured over (doing nothing else bar essentials**) from 10am until 2am yesterday.
Michael Chabon is a contemporary American novelist, and Kavalier & Clay is very much a contemporary American novel. It’s huge, well over 600 pages, and deals with big, weighty issues. Samuel Klayman (later Sammy Clay) and Josef (later Joe) Kavalier are cousins and Jewish. Sammy has grown up in New York City, and in 1939, his cousin Joe arrives from Prague, fleeing the Nazi spread and hoping to figure out ways to ease the escape of his parents and younger brother. Joe trained as a magician and escape artist as a teenager, then later went to art school, whilst Sammy was physically weak due to polio in childhood and idolised his absent, strongman father and the contents of pulp novels and early comic books. Their interests collide and they create the Escapist: a superhero as popular and influential as Superman, and they receive much acclaim and financial rewards, but a pittance compared to the massive wealth gained by the publishers. Both of them fall in love in the midst of their success, but the tentative happiness within both of their lives is in sharp contrast to what is happening across the Atlantic to Joe’s family and, of course, millions and millions of other people.
That’s the plot of only about half the book, and there are significant strains I’ve ignored. I could easily bust out a thousand words detailing Chabon’s narrative structure, which frequently goes in unexpected directions and never once touches on a sour note. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001***, and it is easy to see why. It is moving, exciting, engaging and discusses every topic of weight that those Americans love: immigrant identities, racism, sexuality, affluence, family, travel, war, violence, revenge, with some touches towards a discussion of spirituality. Kavalier & Clay examines old Jewish myths, delves into Antarctic exploration and offers a lot of insight into the early growth of the comic book industry. It sweats research, Chabon’s reading is evident in every chapter and his expert plotting is evidenced on every page.
The characters of Joe and Sammy are both beautifully nuanced – Sammy’s growing awareness and then repression of his homosexuality, Joe’s guilt at not doing enough to punish Germany for its treatment of the Jews in Europe, and then intense shame whenever he does act. Rosa, the third protagonist and Joe’s love interest, is more sketchily drawn. Though she is introduced as a sharp, intelligent, late 1930s flapper, charming and sexually liberated, in the later sections of the novel she is a very cowed, timid figure. Granted, a decade passes without the reader seeing what happens to her, and the aftermath of the war and its many casualties (as well as an unsatisfying personal life) go some way towards explaining her change,but overall Rosa feels a little bit like Chabon wrote two characters who share a name – there is little of the initial character present at the end.
This is, I suppose, a minor criticism, because the other peripheral characters all seem to be complete. There’s a surrealist art dealer, Sammy’s working class Jewish family, there’s the ageing magician in Prague who taught Joe everything he knows, there are the avaricious producers of comic books and the jaded pulp editor who used to dream of literature. There’s Sammy’s strongman father, there’s the pilot in Antarctica, and the German Geologist down on the ice too (in fact, the section set in Antarctica – about 50 pages – is the most interesting (and unique) part of the whole novel and would (possibly) work as a standalone piece), there’s the handsome actor who awakens Sammy’s desire, and there are cameos from famous people of the time (Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Stan Lee), but – as you may notice – all of these are men. Other than Sammy’s mother, a key figure near the start of the novel, all the memorable and significant characters are male – and in a novel all about the zeitgeist, about culture and about an entire city at a certain time, this seems to be a bit of an absence. Yes, the comics industry was (and probably is, I don’t know) dominated by men, but these characters also had social lives in non-gendered spaces. At the parties they go to, Rosa is almost always the only woman described as present, even though she certainly isn’t implied to be the only one there. Kavalier & Clay is all about brotherhood and male friendships and male homosexual desire and male bonds and disagreements in both business and war. Chabon’s New York is a male place, and though centring a lot of the action on the sky-fucking phallus that is the Empire State Building draws double attention to this, I’m not certain it is entirely justified.
Is this me just tacking on an unnecessary critical angle to an otherwise positive blog? And does writing about gay men and Jewish people tick the same boxes as gender parity does? Errrrr…
What i want to say, though, is that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is very good. It made me cry tens of times, laugh a lot of times, too, and many sections – particularly Joe’s escape from Nazi-occupied Europe and the entire bit, mentioned above, set in Antarctica – kept me riveted with excitement. The problem, though, is that it’s huge. I love to read, and for a book to take me almost 3 weeks is a sign that a) i’m working too much and b) the book is too long.
Chabon’s writing relies a little on cliche from time to time in the first half of the book: little phrases are repeated, though this may have been a deliberate allusion to Joe’s developing English or, more likely, the second copy I bought had undergone a gentle, later, edit.
I’ll never know.
But I really enjoyed this, and will definitely be seeking out (shorter) Chabon in the future. A joy. A heavy, emotional joy. Something lighter next.
* And working an average of 10 hours every day.
** I.e. book, food, alcohol shopping, replying to work emails, perfecting the Cosmopolitan and reading City Metric, my favourite website.
*** But, given that The Goldfinch won last year, that isn’t necessarily something to brag about. My scathing review of that here.